This article is the second in a series focusing on feedback that moves learning forward. Built on the lessons learned from evidence submitted by schools and conversations with administrators, teachers and students, this series will encourage thinking and provide resources to promote effective feedback practices.

By Teresa Rogers

How much time have you spent tediously pouring over student work in an attempt to assign a grade? You carefully choose the wording of your feedback, often to explain or justify the grade.

Your heart sinks when you return the papers. The class glances at their work and then quickly buries it deep within a stack of paper – or worse yet, they simply crumple it up and toss it in the trash on the way out the door.

Of course, there are always one or two students who want to know why they only received 98 percent, but overall, your hard work is mostly ignored. You’re left feeling defeated and wondering what more you can do, but take heart, you’re not alone.

In Dylan Wiliam’s book “Embedded Formative Assessment,” he writes about a study by Ruth Butler, a researcher and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Education. Butler compared the effects of providing a grade and/or comments on student work. Students given only comments showed substantial growth on similar tasks as compared to those who were given a grade. Students who received both a grade and comment made no more progress than those who were simply given a grade.

Butler found that students who received a high score didn’t need to read the comments, and those who received a low score didn’t want to.

What are the implications of these finding?
On the practical side, teachers spend an exorbitant amount of time writing comments on student work. However, they often assign a grade alongside the comment or fail to provide time for students to use the comments to improve their work.  These two practices negate the teacher’s time and effort and typically fail to produce noticeable student growth. To encourage growth, students must have the opportunity to use the feedback without the evaluative element of a grade.

Feedback, whether it be written or verbal, must direct the next step for students. In Wiliam’s words, it should be a “recipe for future action” and provide direction for where students need to go next. Comments should be prioritized into smaller, doable next steps with time provided for students to apply the feedback they have been given. Oftentimes, less feedback can have a greater impact.

What types of comments are most effective?
In “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students,” Susan Brookhart cites a study from the British Educational Research Journal written by Pat Tunstall and Caroline Gipps (1996) of the two main types of feedback, descriptive and evaluative. Descriptive feedback is intended to be constructive and is composed of both “achievement feedback” and “improvement feedback.” Achievement feedback describes what was done well and why. Improvement feedback explains for a student what more can be done and what strategies might lead to improvement of the work. Interestingly, they found that even criticism, if it was descriptive and not judgmental, could be constructive.

Evaluative feedback includes both positive and negative comments. Comments such as “good work” or “you can do better” often send a different message to students than the one you intended. There is no explanation of what is good or what needs to be done better. Your intent may have been to motivate and encourage, but students often view it as another form of evaluation. Brookhart adds that students are less likely to pay attention to descriptive feedback if it is accompanied by judgments, such as a grade or an evaluative comment.

Moreover, praise can have unintended adverse effects. Wiliam points readers to the work of Carol S. Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University. In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she asserts that praise should only be related to factors within an individual’s control, adding that praising a gifted student simply for being gifted is likely to lead to long-term negative consequences.

What does descriptive feedback look like in action?
The video, Austin’s Butterfly, is an excellent example of what is possible if students are given specific, actionable feedback and the time to apply those comments. The clip is outside of the world of literacy, but as you watch, compare the artistic process to the writing process. Notice the timing of the feedback, i.e., when they offer suggestions on the big, structural issues and when they provide feedback on small, but important, details?

In Austin’s Butterfly, the feedback first focused on the shape of the drawing. It would be futile to add fine details only to later ask the artist to refine the shape. But do we sometimes ask students to do exactly that? Do we point out grammar, spelling or word choice when the writing has deep structural flaws – such as organization and cohesiveness – that need to be addressed first? Of course, all of us, at some time in our instructional journeys probably have required this of students.

Instead, just as the students did in Austin’s Butterfly, feedback should be based on observations. First, consider the stage of the writing process. Are they planning, drafting, revising or editing? Will students have time to put the feedback into action? How much is doable? Remember Wiliam’s “recipe for future action” as you describe:

  • What do you see?
  • What works well?
  • What is the next step for this student?
  • What resource(s) could you suggest for the student, e.g., models, organizers, lists, etc.?

Contemplating on the impact on feedback, both negative and positive, it is critical that we consider our words carefully. Just as any skill, the art of providing effective feedback requires us to reflect and refine. In the words of education reformer John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”



Read more about this Kentucky Teacher series on feedback: